2015 AIA Education Facility Design Award; Architect: CO Architects with Ayers Saint Gross. Photo:  Bill Timmerman.

The architecture that keeps us safe

 By Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

Today, society continues to debate the role that architecture should play when it comes to security. There’s an abundance of abysmal examples: buildings buttressed by jersey walls, metal spikes, barbed wire, bars, and berms or surrounded by a phalanx of security; defensive architecture designed to function like a fortress or retrofitted with tacked-on deterrents. How, then, should architects design safe spaces that are also beautiful and humane?

It’s a question that’s been taken up recently by some of the most targeted of building types, including U.S. embassies.

“Embassies and consulates must exemplify the best of American architecture, environmental stewardship, and innovation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2013 when discussing the U.S. State Department’s new Design Excellence initiative.

Architects are being mandated to move beyond the bunker and create buildings abroad that are capable of keeping people inspired as well as safe.

Back home in America, we are—according to the numbers—safer than ever. Crime statistics from the FBI show that violent and quality-of-life crimes have diminished over the decades. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Not after people with guns breached offices and movie theaters, churches and elementary schools. Security is as much about perception as it is about reality, and cultural anxiety often influences building design.

2015 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture; United States Courthouse, Salt Lake City, Utah; Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners; Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects. Photo: Scott Frances.

2015 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture; United States Courthouse, Salt Lake City, Utah; Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners; Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects. Photo: Scott Frances.

Lynda Buel, the owner and CEO of SRMC, a security consultation firm based in Columbus, Ohio, has a background in criminology and criminal justice, as well as 30 years of professional security management experience, including working with AEC firms.

She says it’s not just clients of high-risk structures—courthouses, embassies, and federal buildings—who are taking security seriously these days; it’s also universities, hospitals, schools, and residential and office buildings.

“Organizations are increasingly aware of the need for security measures,” Buel says. “But the other thing I hear from our clients is that they want the feel of an open, welcoming environment. They want a balance.”

Identifying Vulnerabilities

Patrick Gilbert, AIA, a senior architect with Gresham, Smith and Partners (GS&P), explains that achieving this balance comes from building in, rather than bolting on, security measures. “Security is not an add-on; rather it’s thinking holistically about a building site or concept,” he says.

Gilbert specializes in corporate and urban design, and always interviews clients about security needs, both real and perceived. “We ask, ‘What are your hot buttons, your vulnerabilities? What are the things that concern you?’ Sometimes it’s about providing a comfortable and safe place for employees; other times it’s about securing critical data,” Gilbert says.

 

2015 Institute Honor Awards for Interior Architecture; Beats by Dre Headquarters; Architect: Bestor Architecture. Photo: Jasper Sanidad.

2015 Institute Honor Awards for Interior Architecture; Beats by Dre Headquarters; Architect: Bestor Architecture. Photo: Jasper Sanidad.

When it comes to the average urban campus or a corporate office building, thoughtful integration and environmental design should support safety. Gilbert points to the concepts of the International Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Association (CPTED), which encourage strategies in landscape and architectural design to deter crime.

A clearly demarcated and well-lit path from the parking garage to the entrance, for example, coupled with one main entry to a building versus multiple entries, helps bolster a building’s perimeter security.

“Our clients think about security on a more prevalent basis than 15 years ago,” Gilbert says. “We’re sometimes surprised by how many bring it up, especially in office buildings, where it’s less about keeping people out than it is about creating an environment where employees feel safe.”

As technology swiftly changes, and client needs do as well, building adaptable spaces becomes important.

“The world evolves, so does security,” Buel says. “We have a saying: ‘You must be fast, fluid, and flexible.’ Architects need to think about 10 years down the road. Ask a client what the plans for the space might be in a decade, and what types of security infrastructure should be in place to support it. Put in the fiber cables and the pipes now. And make sure IT is a part of the conversation.”

2015 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards; Slover Library; Architect: Newman Architects. Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto.

2015 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards; Slover Library; Architect: Newman Architects. Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto.

In fact, bring everyone to the table. “In the past, architectural firms often designed in a bubble,” Buel says. “They would meet with the higher-ups within the organization, but now they are engaging stakeholders at all levels of the organization—the people who live, work, and play in those environments.”

When it comes to security, “inviting everyone to the table makes all the difference,” Buel says.

And architects surely have a seat at the table when it comes to creating spaces that will keep us safe.

A version of this article also appears in ARCHITECT Magazine.